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25 March, 2007

Confabulation To The Max

I’ve written before about confabulation – to my mind, one of the keys to understanding human nature. Once you are tuned in to the phenomenon, you start spotting it everywhere. In the past couple of days, I have come across two extreme examples: one in the medical literature and the other in fiction.

The medical one first. I came across this on the British Psychological Society website. ‘AD’ is a 65-year-old man who suffered a cardiac arrest which caused damage to the fronto-temporal region of his brain. This brought on a number of ill-effects, including anterograde amnesia (the inability to remember things that have happened since the cardiac arrest). The really interesting thing about AD, however, is that he now tends to adopt different personalities depending on his social setting. His doctors set up some scenarios to test it. In a cocktail bar, AD immediately assumed the role of bartender, inventing an elaborate story to explain his presence there. In a hospital kitchen, he became the head chef, again with a complex story to explain himself. His doctors describe his condition as a form of ‘disinhibition’ but to me this is just an extreme case of confabulation, probably in response to the amnesia. In the absence of any memory of why he is where he is, AD seems to be confabulating plausible stories. The strange part is why he always chooses to be a central character in the situation. It may be no coincidence that the guy was a politician before the heart attack.

The fictional example of extreme confabulation is the film ‘Stay’. I watched this mostly because it has Naomi Watts in it – possibly my favourite actress – but I had fairly low expectations. As it played – a story about an art student (Ryan Gosling) and a therapist (Ewan McGregor) who becomes obsessed with trying to prevent him killing himself – I was finding it interesting enough but nothing special. In fact, as the story began to grow increasingly weird and the identity of the student seemed to be merging with that of the therapist and the direction become more and more David Lynch-like, I was beginning to get a bit irritated with it. I’ve had too many films that go all surreal and ‘deep and meaningful’ on me and I didn’t like the idea that I’d wasted my time with another. Then, in the last five minutes, a wonderful twist was revealed that redeemed the whole thing and turned it into one of the best films I’ve seen in ages. And the confabulation thing? Well, I’m sorry, but if I told you that, I’d give away the twist. But trust me, it’s there.

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